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Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


In her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg has a little something to say about feminism, women, and power.

She doesn’t devote much time to detailing or discussing the external, institutional barriers that we women face in gaining power and becoming leaders in our workplaces, the political arena, and the world. She doesn’t devote much time to these barriers because she feels that’s been well covered by others - we’ve already been there, covered that, beat that dead horse a la the Feminine Mystique. Sandberg wants to focus on our individual circles of influence. This isn’t about sociology and the group, this is about psychology and the individual. This is about what we can do, in spite of those external barriers, to rise to power.

Sandberg’s main premise is that there are barriers inside of us, holding us back, and fencing off success. If we simply overcome these barriers we can rise to power and change the world through the power we wield.

Sandberg on what women are designed to do…

The foremost of these barriers is the internalized ideology that we aren’t designed to be aggressive; aren’t meant to hold power over men. Sandberg seemingly considers this assertion so repugnant that she doesn’t bother to argue against it. She simply recounts the ideology and steamrolls over it as if it were irrelevant. 

Sandberg is a smart and well educated woman. She owes a more detailed rebuttal of the classic religious and evolutionary biology arguments on a woman’s purpose then she’s presented. As noted in fact, she’s presented no rebuttal to these arguments.

Sandberg on what women want to do…

Anticipating the potential criticism, Sandberg acknowledges that even if we could let go of these constraining ideals of what we “should” do, not every woman actually wants to be ambitious in her career; not every woman wants to hold power and serve as a leader over others. She pays lip service to freedom, to choice, but only briefly and only after she reminds us how high the stakes on equality are: the world would be SUCH a better place if men and women in equal numbers provided leadership in companies, in politics, in the world. In her chapter entitled “The Leadership Ambition Gap” Sandberg quietly notes that there may be biological differences between the sexes that contribute to the gap in ambition between the sexes, but quickly moves on to expound on all of the external forces that researchers have identified as influential in this area, leaving the biology argument largely unanswered as a footnote.

Reducing woman’s desires and instincts to cultural brainwashing is derogatory and arrogant. And implying that if women wielded equal share in world leadership, things would be improved is both naïve and gender biased. On the whole, history teaches us that more voices, i.e. a stronger democracy, does not necessarily bring about gains in justice. Tyranny of the mob and all that. And there is nothing “special” about women over men that indicates our leadership will be a more ethical one. 

Sandberg on emotion…

Authentic emotion is appropriate in the workplace. Sandberg argues that it’s misguided to attempt to leave our personal selves at home when we come to the workplace. Don’t be afraid to cry at work when you’re really upset, or share other genuine emotions with your colleagues.

I don’t know what to do with this. Sandberg cautions women into dropping many other qualities traditionally associated with femininity (being gentle, being overly cooperative, being likeable, etc) but encourages us to hold onto this one. Why? Oddly, this might be one of the feminine qualities I think can sink us in the business world if we don’t harness it carefully (just like a man’s aggression can tempt him to steamroll over others and must be harnessed with good character).

Sandberg on stewardship of our time…

Don’t pull back from putting in above and beyond effort at work in light of any long term plans you have to leave the workforce to pursue other goals (such as rearing children). If you’re going to work, then work hard and work ambitiously to the best of your ability. You can pull back when it’s time to leave. Until then, put your whole heart into it, Sandberg argues.

On the subject of choosing working outside the home or childrearing you don’t have to choose. You can opt for daycare and consider it an investment in your future earning potential (because women who leave the workforce to raise children rarely ever reach high salary levels even after/if they return).

I can get behind doing a good job of whatever it is you are set about doing. I cannot get behind outsourcing the raising of one’s children to other people.

Sandberg on parenting and division of labor…

Men need to lean in at home and take on a more equitable share of childrearing and home keeping labor. Women should not marry a man who isn’t willing to do so.

Economics teaches us that division of labor benefits all. This doesn’t mean 50/50 splits. If a couple is comfortable with the male handling all or part of the housework while the woman handles some or none of it, fine. And vice versa. While Sandberg is free to choose her husband as per the qualities that matter most to her, suggesting that all women, at the outset define a good man as one that is willing to divide up the labor in just the way Sandberg advocates is ridiculous.

Sandberg on doing it all..

The conservatives who argue you can’t do it all (a la supermom) are right. Something has to bend. Sandberg recommends women with children bend their work habits some (be willing to work less hours, maybe only 45 or 50 or so a week) and bend their mommy habits (be content to have less time with your children; research shows they will still grow up ok if you stick them in daycare) and give up the idea of reaching ideal or perfect standards in any area. We can’t do all the things well; we can do all the things fairly ok, or do a few things really well.

This might be the worst advice in the entire book.

Sandberg on broaching the topic gender bias in our workplaces…

It’s important to be talk about gender differences, gender bias, and other gender issues in the workplace. But not too much! We don’t want to minimize, but we don’t want to obsess.


Sandberg on personal choice…

In the concluding chapters of Lean In, Sandberg reiterates that she unequivocally supports every woman making the choice that is right for them. However, she advocates hard for a societal push to encourage women at every junction to pursue leadership and power with gusto.

Translation: you can do whatever you want but Sandberg would like society to readjust so that the default message is to push you toward leadership and power instead of away from it. As is probably clear from the tone of my summary, I don’t at all agree with Sheryl Sandberg and her prescription for world improvement. I don’t think it’s the plan of God for more women to dominate and lead in the public sphere and I don’t think most women want to do so and I don’t think most men are comfortable in a society structured toward that end.  I think that occasionally God calls out exceptional women to be in such a role and that it is just that- an exception and not the standard. I think that women are here to be the gentle, tender, nurturing and feminizing image of God, in partnership with the masculine images of God that men give glory to. 


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